"You're a rude little fucker, aren't you?"
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The candles on the periphery of the circle flared, then guttered and went out. Heath uncrossed his legs and got to his feet, slowly and a little unsteadily. He swayed for a moment, then found his balance and stepped from the inside of the chalk outline to the outside.
He stumbled to the stove, fumbled for the dishrag hanging from the handle and wiped his face. He was slick with sweat, which had reactivated the pepper spray on his skin; he knew the pain would keep him from sleeping, but after six months of post-acute benzodiazepine withdrawal, he was accustomed to sleepless nights.
He went under the sink for a bucket and filled it with soapy water. He retrieved the mop from the closet next to the refrigerator and was about to erase the remnants of the circle he’d chalked on the kitchen floor when there was a knock at the front door. He put the mop down and walked through the kitchen and living room, opened the door a crack, and looked outside.
“Down here, n****,” growled a clipped, gravelly voice.
Heath looked down. “Lysol?” he said uncertainly.
The man’s glare, directed upwards, was frosty. He wore wraparound sunglasses, a dark green suede car coat with the sleeves pushed up, dark trousers, and black work boots. He was at least ten years older than Heath, and about four feet tall, with a bulky musculature, a shaved head, a long, square-cut gray beard, and skin the color of an old, well-worn leather armchair. His arms and legs, though thick with muscle, were very short. A square black ballistic nylon suitcase sat on the ground to either side of him, close to hand.
“Clorox,” the cleaner replied coldly. “I make DNA dis—”
Heath nodded hurriedly and held out a hand, palm up, to stop the dwarf from continuing. He had done some token research on achondroplastic dwarfism while preparing to teach a module on John Irving’s A Son of The Circus to his undergraduate students, and from the little he could recall, he knew the cleaner was unusual even for his stature. Achondroplasia typically results in diminished muscle tone and obesity, but the man before him looked like Carl Weathers at 3/4 scale. “Yeah, I got it, thank you,” he said. “Come on in.”
Clorox reached down and picked up a suitcase in each hand and followed Heath into the house. Heath decided from the way he moved that the bags were probably metal with ballistic nylon sheathing. Each bag must have weighed sixty pounds, but the cleaner hefted them without apparent effort. Heath closed the door behind him. “Make yourself at home,” he said. “Can I get you something to drink?”
Clorox followed Heath into the living room and put his bags down next to one another by the door. He took off his sunglasses and sat down on the edge of the sofa, so that his feet remained on the floor. “Yeah,” he growled, looking around critically at the dingy furnished house. “Beer. Leave the cap on, if you don’t mind. I like to open my own drink.”
Heath went into the kitchen. There were two bottles left in the six-pack of Modelo Especial in the refrigerator. Withdrawal was keeping him sober for the time being, but Nora had liked Modelo. He brought one into the living room and handed it to Clorox. “You need a church key?” he asked.
The cleaner took a tartan silk handkerchief from the inside pocket of his car coat and wiped the bottle cap with it, then opened the bottle with his back teeth. “No,” he said flatly, spitting the cap into his hand and dropping it into the pocket of his car coat. He knocked back a slug of beer without taking his eyes from Heath's. “Any particular reason you smell like pepper spray?” he asked, wiping his mouth with his handkerchief. His voice was faintly accusatory.
“You’re a rude little fucker, aren’t you?” said Heath tiredly, slumping heavily into the chair opposite the dwarf. His eyes stung, and all he wanted to do was sleep.
Clorox’s face split into a grin. “Yeah,” he said. “I am. Who hosed you down with that pepper?” He pronounced the word like “peppah.”
“I hosed me down,” Heath said. “Along with the rest of the room. What did Dominic tell you about me?”
The dwarf regarded him appraisingly. “That you used to be a Hound,” he said. “But he said you done gone straight.”
“Apparently not,” Heath said. He stood up. “Dominic’s sending up another Hound. He ought to be here in a few hours.”
Clorox sipped his beer. “Yeah, he told me the limey was coming,” he said. “I worked with him once before, on a Houdini. After they send in the Greyhound, some people always got to vanish like they was never there.” He took another slug of Modelo and smacked his lips. “What’s left of ‘em,” he added thoughtfully.
“I have to finish what I was doing,” Heath said. He inclined his head in the direction of the bathroom. “The pissoir stinks like pepper, but it’s over there if you need it.” He walked back to the kitchen. The sweat on his skin had almost fully reactivated the pepper spray; the smell was nauseating, and he didn’t want to throw up in front of the cleaner. He got a glass from the cupboard, poured himself water from the Brita pitcher in the fridge, and sipped it slowly.
If he had to take a job on behalf of the Ghost, he could have done worse than to get it from Dominic, he knew; the fence was on the periphery of a variety of underworld milieus, and while he almost certainly didn't know the extent of Clorox's remit, he had at least known who to call.
Heath was relieved that the dwarf had taken “rude little fucker” as well as he had hoped. It was in the cultural DNA of cleaners to know how to dish it out, but not all knew how to take it, or when taking it was warranted. They were chemical and pyro-explosive specialists whose job it was to destroy evidence, obscure the nature of a Hound’s activities after the fact, and generally muddy the waters for investigators, and they characteristically liked things to be just so. It was Heath’s private feeling that most of them were fussy little prima donnas masquerading as hard men, but Clorox didn’t look to Heath like a prima donna. He looked like he knew his job; more importantly, Heath now knew he could play well with others.
He squatted down and picked up the stubs of candle, ran the faucet over them to be sure, and disposed of them in the trash. He dunked the mop in the bucket of soapy water and obliterated the chalk circle, a small smile playing about his face despite his exhaustion and nausea. He’d been meaning to deal with Lisa Carver’s big brother for a little while now. Carroll was old, unfinished business, and Heath disliked loose ends. But he’d known there were old rules, and one of them was that you had to have cause to deal with people like Carroll. More importantly, there were others who knew about the old rules, and Heath had known they would be paying attention.
$3,000 from Daryl Carver constituted cause. Technically, $0.01 would have been enough, and Heath would have done it for that, but there would have been questions. No one would ask them now.
I've taken too long to get to this update--the bright side is, there's plenty to keep reading from here. Bloody stylish writing, as always. Entranced in particular by the pepper spray reemerging with sweat from the skin--great detail.